Racial Journeys: Justice, Internment and Japanese-Peruvians in Peru, the United States, and Japan
On June 13, 2007, the US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs created a commission to investigate the facts and circumstances surrounding the relocation, internment, and deportation of Latin Americans of Japanese descent to the United States during World War II. Among these were almost two thousand Peruvian citizens and permanent residents. Though not as widely known as the famous saga of internment and redress of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians, in many ways the story of the Japanese in Peru is more intriguing, as much information still lies in the shadows, and is only now coming to light. Likewise, the issues of civil liberties that underscore this story—how a powerful nation can coerce a weaker ally into handing over some of its own people for imprisonment in another country without due process, on the ground that they are potential subversives—are all too obvious in a post 9/11 world fighting a “war on terrorism”. Also, while many people know that Peru’s Alberto Fujimori was the first person of Japanese ancestry to be elected leader of a nation outside of Japan—thereby indicating a potential immigrant success story—few are aware of the cultural and social conflicts that still plague today’s Peruvian Japanese population. Even fewer are likely to know about struggles of Japanese Peruvians who “return” to their ancestors’ homeland for work for higher wages than the unstable Peruvian economy can provide. The short story of the Japanese in Peru, then, is many ways a microcosm of the larger saga of migration, discrimination and assimilation in the globalized, racialized, transnational twenty-first century world.
Panama Canal Zone: Japanese Peruvians en route to U.S. Internment Camps.
April 2, 1942.
The Japanese Peruvian community began in 1899 when some 800 contract workers arrived in Callao Seaport in Lima. The Japanese migrants suffered from serious tropical diseases such as malaria, typhoid, and yellow fever, as well as discrimination due to race, language, and culture. Within a year, 143 had died and 93 fled to Bolivia (becoming the first Japanese immigrants in that country). A second ship, which brought over one thousand new Japanese immigrants, arrived four years later, and a third—with 774 Japanese immigrants—arrived in 1906 (Gardiner 1981: 3-4). By 1941 some 16,300 Japanese were living in Peru (10,300 from Okinawa and 6,000 from mainland Japan). Of these, only 230 were women (Masterson 2007: 148). Thus, unlike Brazil where farming family immigration was encouraged by the Brazilian authority for the migratory workers to settle in coffee plantations, single Japanese men but few women migrated to Peru. Most Japanese men married local women. Today, there are about 85,000 people of Japanese descent living in Peru, about 0.3 percent of population. The majority are descendants of pre-war immigrants.
Unlike many other countries in Latin America, most Japanese immigrants did not settle on farms and plantations in Peru. They were able to moved around to seek better opportunities and many migrated to the cities. Some worked for Japanese proprietors or started their own small businesses. Actually, by 1930, 45 percent of all Japanese in Peru ran small businesses in Lima. As in California, economic conflicts with local businesses quickly arose. The Eighty Percent Law passed in 1932 required that at least 80 percent of shop employees be non-Asian Peruvians. Furthermore, the Immigration Law of 1936 prohibited citizenship to children of alien parents, even if they were born in Peru. Peru was hardly the only country in the New World to take such actions. The United States prohibited citizenship for Asians at its inception in 1790, and reiterated it for Japanese in 1908 and 1924.
In 1940, an earthquake destroyed the city of Lima. By this time the community of Japanese and their wives and children was about 30,000 in Peru. Rumors spread that Japanese were looting. As a result, some 650 Japanese houses were attacked and destroyed in Lima, an event resonating with the attack on Koreans in Japan at the time of the 1923 Kanto earthquake. Other harsh measures against Japanese-Peruvians followed. For example, in 1940 it was decreed that Japanese-Peruvians who went abroad to study in Japan would lose Peruvian citizenship.
In 1941, Peru broke off diplomatic relations with Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack and social and legal discrimination towards Japanese-Peruvians increased. All Japanese community institutions were disbanded, Japanese-language publications prohibited, and gatherings of more than three Japanese could constitute spying (Peru Simpo 1975 in Takenaka 2004:92). Japanese were not allowed to open businesses, and those who had a business were forced to auction them off. Japanese-owned deposits in Peruvian banks were frozen (Takenaka 2004:92). By 1942, Japanese were not even allowed to lease land (enacting laws jointly with the United States) (Gerbi 1943 in Takenaka 2004:92). The freedom of Japanese to travel outside their home communities was also restricted (Takenaka 2004:92).
These draconian measures were the result of agreements among the foreign ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela in meetings in Rio de Janeiro. To bolster the security of all North and South America, they also recommended (1) the incarceration of dangerous enemy aliens, (2) the prevention of the descendants of enemy nationals to abuse their rights of citizenship to do things like criticize the government, (3) the regulation of international travel by enemy aliens and their families, and (4) the prevention of all acts of potential political aggression by enemy aliens, such as espionage, sabotage, and subversive propaganda (Gardiner 1981: 17).
Japanese-Peruvians and the United States
According to Gardiner (in Hirabayashi and Yano 2006: 160), 2,264 Latin Americans of Japanese descent were deported to the United States in 1942. Among those, at least 1,800 people were from Peru. Those Japanese who were on a “blacklist” at the American embassy in Peru were kidnapped and deported at gunpoint by the Peruvian police to interment camps in Texas and New Mexico. These deported “Japanese” included many people born in Peru (Gardiner 1981: 14-15; Hirabayashi and Kikumura-Yano 2007: 157). At these camps, the Japanese-Peruvians were joined by some 500 Japanese immigrants and their children from eleven other Latin American nations, (i.e., Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama).
It is hard today to discern the precise reasons for these deportations. Patriotic wartime hysteria and political pressure from the United States were major contributing factors, but these simply added to the already extensive patterns of discrimination found in Peru. According to California Democratic congressman Xavier Becerra, one motive behind this action was to use these people as bargaining chips. Becerra and members of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Interment of Latin Americans of Japanese Descent Act (S 381 and H.R. 662) claim that some 800 Japanese Latin Americans in these camps were sent to Japan in exchange for captured American soldiers. However, substantive evidence that these exchanges actually took place remains to be documented.
Life in the camps was not only a physical and economic struggle for Japanese-Peruvians, it also involved conflict with both non-Japanese Americans and Japanese Americans. Physically, the internment camps in the United States were like prisons, with residents surrounded by barbed-wire fences with armed guards. Physical conditions, especially at first, were stark. Each camp housed about 10,000 people, and conditions were often crowded. However, the residents gradually organized themselves, and by the end of the war something of a community had grown in each camp. There were newspapers, amateur theaters, schools, and sports teams. Many people had jobs, such as cooks, janitors, or health-care workers. As time passed, some Japanese were given a chance to be released temporarily from the camps to engage in agricultural work in local areas.
But these opportunities were mostly limited to Japanese Americans, most of whom were either first-generation Japanese or their Nisei second-generation children born in the United States. They knew almost nothing about Peru or the Japanese Peruvians, and showed little interest in learning more. The feelings seemed mutual. This was especially true for the Nisei, most of whom thought of themselves simply as Americans or Peruvians and identified with the cultural and social values of their respective host nations. The Japanese minority from Latin America, then, was a minority even in the internment camps.
Japanese-American infantrymen of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team
hike up a muddy French road in the Chambois Sector, France, in late 1944.
In 1943 President Roosevelt suggested to the War Department that Japanese-Americans join the U.S. Army in an all-Japanese-American unit as one means to prove the loyalty of the Japanese-American community. This unit became known as the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and demonstrated great bravery and skill. About 3,000 men from Hawaii and 800 men from the mainland served in the armed forces at the time the unit was formed.
Italian, German and Japanese residents of Latin America leaving
a temporary internment camp in the Panama Canal Zone to join
their male relatives in U.S. internment camps. April 7 1942.
Toward the end of the war the War Relocation Authority asked all internees over the age of 18—this time including Japanese from Peru—if they were loyal to the United States, and would defend the country against Japan if called upon to do so. Many of the Issei (first generation immigrants), who had been denied American citizenship because of their race, agonized at the prospect of facing parents, friends, and relatives in Japan at gunpoint. However, if they refused to declare loyalty to America they could become stateless. Some second generation Nisei, too, were suspicious of a government that had taken away their rights as American citizens. Not surprisingly, Japanese Peruvians, whose only American experience was their internment, were equally, if not more, hostile. By 1943, after many Japanese Americans had proved loyal to the US by enlisting, the US began drafting Japanese-American men including those who had been denied most of the rights enjoyed by US citizens and been imprisoned. As a result by the end of the war more than 33,000 Japanese-American men and women had served in the American armed forces.
The West Coast exclusion orders that had barred Japanese Americans from living on the coast were terminated in December, 1944, and the last camp was closed in March 1946. Although no provisions were made to compensate them for the losses they incurred during the war or as a result of internment (except for the $25 that each was given when leaving the camps), Japanese-Americans were free to go anywhere in the country. Many returned to the West Coast. But Japanese-Peruvians who were detained in the United States were neither allowed to return to Peru until 1948. Nor were their belongings returned to them by the Peruvian government following return. Although a few managed to return to Latin America, many were either deported to Japan or reentered the United States from Mexico and applied for a visa to stay in the United States.
In 1988, over 110,000 Japanese Americans who were interned during the war received an official apology from the American government and $20,000 compensation for being incarcerated. However, Japanese Latin Americans who were interned received no apology or compensation. This was because when they were deported from Peru, their passports were taken away by the Peruvian government, and they were classified as "illegal aliens" upon their arrival in the States. Being neither U.S. citizens nor permanent residents at that time, they failed to qualify for reparations even though the majority eventually became American citizens after the war. Finally, after a class-action lawsuit, in June 1998 American-interned Latin Americans received an official apology from the U.S. government and nominal compensation of $5000. However, only about 800 Latin Americans accepted this offer, the others simply rejecting it outright.
As mentioned, in summer 2007 a US Senate committee formed a commission to investigate the relocation, internment, and deportation of Latin Americans of Japanese descent during World War II. It estimated that the cost of the investigation would be about $500,000. The sponsors included Senators Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka from Hawaii, Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowski from Arkansas, Carl Levin from Michigan, Patrick Leahy from Vermont, and Congressmen, Xavier Becerra, Dan Lungren, and Mike Honda of California and Chris Cannon of Utah. The investigation was originally initiated in 2006 by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Latin Americans of Japanese Descent Act. It remains to be seen if the commission will come up with a solution that is acceptable to both the US government and the Latin American Japanese victims.
Japanese-Peruvians in the Post-War Period: Alberto Fujimori and the Legacy of Discrimination
Although anti-Japanese discrimination in Peru was among the worst in Latin America, in 1990 Alberto Fujimori was elected President, and was reelected in 1995. He was the first person not only of Japanese descent, but of Asian descent, to be elected president outside Asia. In late 2000 Fujimori’s administration was rocked by scandal, and accusations of corruption and human rights violations. While Fujimori was visiting Japan, the Peruvian authorities indicted him. Fujimori’s resignation was announced while he was in Japan. Receiving a faxed resignation letter, the Peruvian Congress refused to accept his resignation, and instead removed him from office. It then barred him from holding any elective office for 10 years and the Congress requested the Japanese government to deport Fujimori to Peru for investigation of his crimes.
Protesters in Peru are demanding Fujimori's return, Dec. 2000.
While Japan was negotiating his relocation, in spite of the 10-year ban, in 2005 Fujimori sought to run in the presidential election of 2006, but the Peruvian authorities officially disqualified him. After traveling to Chile in 2005, Fujimori was detained by the Chilean authorities. He was released from prison in 2006 but placed under house arrest. The Peruvian government formally requested extradition to face human rights and corruption charges, but the Chilean government rejected the request in 2007 (his extradition is still being decided in the courts). In summer 2007, Fujimori tried to run for a seat in Japan’s Upper House. Running under the banner of the small People’s New Party, he called himself “the last samurai” in campaign videos, and pledged to restore traditional values to government. His 51,411 votes fell far short of winning. These political incidents seem to have set back social progress for people of Japanese descent in Peru.
Fujimori called himself "the last Samurai" in a campaign video
Japanese-Peruvians and Dekasegi in Japan
In the 1980s, the Peruvian economy suffered a number of setbacks, and inflation soared as high as 2000% a year at times. In Japan, however, with the economic boom many factories were short of labor. Around this period, the average wage for an unskilled laborer in Japan was about $20,000 per year (Tsuda 1999: 693). This was over 40 times the minimum wage in Peru, and over eight times the salary of many in management. These economic conditions led many people from Peru to seek work in Japan.
Japanese companies in the 1980s hesitated to hire people of different ethnic backgrounds. It was felt that such people might not adapt well to Japanese labor practices. The Japanese government proposed avoiding some of these problems by employing Nikkei (people of Japanese descent born and raised outside Japan) returnees from Latin America, who, it was thought, shared racial and cultural affinities with Japanese. The government issued special work permits to people of Japanese descent going back three generations. These guest workers are commonly called dekasegi (lit. “migratory earners”) workers in Japan.
The results were not quite those anticipated. In the case of Peru, in 1992 Victor Aritomi, the Peruvian ambassador to Japan, said that although it was reported that among the almost 40,000 Japanese-Peruvians—that is, half of the Japanese-Peruvian population—who were then living in Japan, only 15,000 at most were “real” Japanese descendants. The rest—that is, almost two thirds of the “Japanese-Peruvians” in Japan at the time—not only had no primordial tie with Japan, but many did not even “look” particularly Asian.
Part of the reason for this was that many dekasegi workers of Japanese descent in Peru had non-Japanese spouses. Since the Japanese government had issued work permits to nuclear family members of dekasegi workers in 1990, the actual composition of the group was not limited to people of Japanese descent.
According to Yanagida (1997: 297), about 30% of Nikkei couples in Peru with a spouse of Latin American origin had dekasegi experiences in 1995. This compares with only 9% of couples in which both partners were Nikkei who had dekasegi experiences at that time. Hearing of the high wages in Japan, many non-Nikkei Peruvians also wished to go to Japan to work. These non-Nikkei people used one of three strategies to obtain dekasegi work permits: (1) become a spouse of a Nikkei, (2) become an adopted child of a Nikkei family, or (3) become Nikkei through use of false or spurious documents—usually Japanese koseki (the Japanese registration of one’s birth and parentage). According to a Spanish correspondent in Tokyo, Montse Watkins, her non-Nikkei Peruvian interviewees paid between one and three thousand US dollars to “become” an adopted child of a Nikkei Peruvian (Watkins 1994: 112, 131, 135). The price of adoption differed depending on the family; however several thousand dollars seems to have been common.
In 1990 one municipal office of a township in Lima received 2,000 adoption registration documents and 500 marriage certificates—including one woman who adopted 60 children in one year (Watkins 1994: 131). Though it is obvious what is going on, the mayor claims that there is no way to stop these irregularities as these Nikkei are not breaking the law: they are free to adopt children or marry who they wish. Even selling and purchasing old koseki birth documents (say, at auction) is not illegal: antique dealers or collectors may simply wish to buy old documents, or papers from a foreign nation written in a foreign language (Fuchigami 1995: 26). Some people who newly and successfully became Nikkei in this way went to Japan to work. Others, however, have been swindled; criminals take their money but never produce the promised documents. 
From the beginning of dekasegi in Japan, however, these Nikkei Peruvians were thought to look a little different from Japanese, or even other Nikkei such as those from Brazil (the largest Nikkei community in Japan). This is because of the high rate of inter-racial mixed-marriages from the early period of Japanese-Peruvian history. Such children differ physically from those of Nikkei who married other Nikkei. It is true that it is thought that even Brazilian Nikkei, the majority of those who have both Japanese descent parents, may look different from Japanese in Japan having grown up in a different social, cultural, and physical environment (Saito 1984). However, the physical distinctions of Peruvians are at a different level as they may not even look like Asian at all.
Aoki Morihisa, a Japanese ambassador and plenipotentiary in Lima, admitted responsibility for sending many “fake” Japanese Peruvian Nikkei to Japan. But he spoke of the embassy’s other difficulties: Peruvian municipal officials have been involved in forging documents (Aoki 1997: 96-97). The officials can retype identifications (such as birth certificates, marriage licenses, or military documents) for their “customers” using a Japanese koseki birth and parentage registration document which was brought over by real Japanese immigrants over a century ago (Watkins 1994: 129). Since municipal officers are involved in this process, the paperwork brought to the embassy looks—and indeed, is—legal.
Such well-organized corruption has never been thought to be a criminal offense in Peru, but rather, a social issue. According to Watkins (1997:128), “dekasegi people sent 120 million dollars to Peru from Japan in 1992. ... This is about 3.5 % of the total exports of Peru of that year.” Since the nation’s economy has been helped by these dekasegi workers, the Peruvian government has been reluctant to prosecute Nikkei impostors. They do not even think of this situation as criminal; instead, they feel the Japanese government should open up this work opportunity to everyone.
One social issue centers around the “Nikkei-ness” of members of Japanese-Peruvian society. Due to racial discrimination in Peru, some people of Japanese-descent left the Japanese-Peruvian community and assimilated in Peruvian society (Aoki 1997: 96). However, others have remained, worked hard for over a century to maintain Nikkei culture and society, and strived to be both model citizens of Peru and good Japanese. The issue of fake Nikkei has undermined their reputation.
It is well known in all Nikkei communities in the world and by Japanese in Japan that some Nikkei have been involved in creating fake Japanese-Peruvians. This comes at a time when many members of Nikkei society all over the world have become newly aware of their Japaneseness, as their dekasegi experience made them suddenly identify as Japanese. Those who sell their Nikkei legacy to non-Japanese are thought to be contemptible. As a result the reputation of Nikkei has been undermined in Nikkei societies worldwide, particularly in Peru and Japan.
People with strong Nikkei associations have negative opinions about those who are “Peruvians who just happen to have Japanese ancestors” or are fake Nikkei Japanese. They call the latter Nikkei-chicha. Chicha is a locally made beverage using sugar cane, the cheapest available ingredient to make an alcoholic beverage in Latin America. The word, chicha was formerly used to criticize a Nikkei who became Peruvianized. Now, Nikkei people use this term to criticize Peruvians who seek to buy someone else’s ethnic background.
Nikkei people blame Nikkei-chichas for the bad time Nikkei often experience in Japan. They also accuse them of illegal activity, such as over-staying their visa in Japan, robbery, or pick pocketing. This social boundary created between Nikkei and non- Nikkei Peruvians is also caused by the denial of their Japanese-ness by the Japanese government. Although many Nikkei-chichas have obtained dekasegi work permits and are working in Japan under the pretext of being Japanese descendants, many biologically legitimate Nikkei have had their applications rejected. A Nikkei woman was refused a dekasegi visa by an immigration officer in Japan because her mother’s marriage license had been corrected with an eraser. This type of correction is very common in Latin American nations; however, in Japan documents corrected in such a way are not accepted.
Another case involved neglecting to report a marriage to the Japanese government. Since the documents the Nikkei-chichas obtain are made with care, they are more likely to be seen as authentic in the eyes of Japanese immigration officials than the papers of Nikkei whose documents were not prepared especially to obtain special working visas.
After 1993, the Japanese economic bubble having burst, many dekasegi lost their jobs. Some stayed on in Japan (but were unable to renew their visas) while others returned to Peru. Japanese-Peruvian Nikkei now face the problem of how to treat the returning Nikkei-chicha. Upon returning to Peru, some Nikkei-chicha tried to become members of Nikkei institutions like sport clubs, cultural centers, and financial cooperatives like “La Cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Pacífico.”
By 1992, this cooperative had become the biggest financial cooperative in Peru due to the support of dekasegi Nikkei who sent their wages to be saved in La cooperativa de Ahorro y Crédito Pacífico. These savings were borrowed by other Nikkei people to build businesses in Peru. In this way, many Nikkei Japanese Peruvians gained economic power in mainstream Peruvian society. For instance, currently about 10% of the stock of Banco del Sur is held by Nikkei.
The problem for these Nikkei is what to do when Nikkei-chichas apply to become members of these Nikkei cooperatives? Nikkei in Peru have adapted the so-called tanomoshikÅ (mutual financial assistance system) that has long been used by many overseas Japanese immigrants. In this credit-union-like system members deposit money into the pool in the expectation of being able to borrow money later. As members may borrow and return money with little interest, the system relies on trust; if a member fails to return his or her loan, other members would not only lose money but be deprived of later opportunities to borrow themselves. The qualification for being a member is that one has to be of Japanese descent. From the Nikkei viewpoint, the Nikkei-chicha see this financial-cooperative system of Nikkei as just another capital institution and do not recognize it as a manifestation of Nikkei-ness. And Nikkei suspect that Nikkei-chicha might not help other Nikkei, honor the cooperative rules which are not based on written agreements, or make financial investments for the larger good of Nikkei society. Fearing that the Nikkei community would be destroyed, they question the commitment of the Nikkei-chichas.
During the early period of immigration to Peru, Japanese experienced racial discrimination and legal restrictions on their economic and political activities. However, this discrimination was institutionalized once World War II began. The United States government inexorably altered life for the Japanese in Peru. The Peruvian government took away their property and passports, and many Japanese Peruvians—especially their economic and political community leaders—were sent to the United States for internment (and possibly for exchange for American prisoners of war).
Current Japanese Peruvian social conflicts are not only with those of different ethnic backgrounds, but also with people with whom they share Japanese ancestry. Although Japanese Americans received an apology and compensation in 1987 for being expropriated and interned during the war, Japanese Peruvians and other Japanese Latin Americans for many years did not. When an apology was finally forthcoming in 1998 the compensation was only one-fourth of that paid to Japanese Americans, a slight leading many to reject the compensation. Even though they experienced the same hardships as Japanese Americans, because they were “foreigners” they were slighted compared to Japanese Americans.
Their journey of racial conflict has continued even in the nation of their ancestors, Japan. Since the late 1980s as Japanese Peruvians “return” to Japan to work, the Japanese government has rejected many on the grounds that they are not authentic Japanese. While all Nikkei dekasegi workers in Japan face social, economic, and political discrimination, the problems facing Japanese Peruvians are compounded by the actions of many Nikkei-chicha.
In 1990 when Alberto Fujimori became the first person of Asian descent to become president of a Western country, Nikkei people the world over were proud and happy. Peruvian Japanese, however, were less enthusiastic. They feared that Fujimori—and by extension, all Peruvian Japanese—would become a lightning rod for attacks by revolutionaries, drug lords, terrorists, or political opponents. Indeed, these fears proved amply justified as terrorists attacked Lima soon after Fujimori took office. Now Fujimori himself has become a wanted international criminal. The historical journey of Japanese Peruvians has long centered around racial conflicts, locally, nationally, and globally. With this year’s attempt by Fujimori to re-enter politics, and with continuing conflicts among ethnic Peruvians and Japanese in Japan, the journey hardly seems over.
Nobuko Adachi is assistant professor of anthropology at Illinois State University and a Japan Focus associate. She is the editor of Japanese Diasporas. Unsung Pasts, Conflicting Presents and Uncertain Futures. She wrote this article for Japan Focus. Posted on Japan Focus, September 7, 2007.
 Besides Lima, immigrant Asians have several times been persecuted during earthquakes in the twentieth century (Chinese in San Francisco in 1906 and Koreans in the Great Kanto [Tokyo] Earthquake in 1923 being just two famous examples).
 Twenty-nine Japanese were sent to interment camps in the United States from Bolivia. After the war only nine came back. See here.
 According to the claims made by the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs in 2007 (S. 381 and H.R. 662), persons of Japanese descent were sent to the United States from thirteen Latin American nations (though these countries are not specified). It is likely that they included Mexico along with the twelve nations I have listed here. According to Hirabayashi and Kikumura-Yano (2006), Mexico kept the Japanese in their own detention camps. In Brazil, Japanese were relocated to the agricultural hinterlands (if they weren’t living there already), but were not put in camps.
 See here; See here for more details.
 The yearly minimum wage for workers in Peru was $480 (Watkins 1994: 123) and the average yearly wage for those in management positions was about $2,400 (Fuchigami 1995: 25).
 When these returnee migrant workers became an international issue, the word dekasegi came to mean returnee guest-worker from any nation. Note, too, that in such cases the Japanese word dekasegi can be spelled differently (e.g., dekassegui in Brazil or dekasegui in Peru).
 It is only these cases that are actually criminal offenses, subject to law enforcement.
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